A triangle of rolling wooded hills in eastern France, southern Belgium and Luxembourg known as the Ardennes region is the home of this small, stocky draught horse, which has a long history and is highly valued today.
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Julius Caesar praised the quality of the Ardennes horse and used the breed for heavy cavalry work. In 1096, led by Geoffrey of Boullion from the Ardennes region, crusaders rode many stallions 2,500 miles to battle in the Holy Land. Napoleon employed them as artillery horses; indeed their hardiness enabled them to survive his disastrous Russian campaign. The French and especially the Belgium armies used them to haul artillery until after the First World War.
The breed has changed considerably over time. Pictures taken at the turn of the century show a much lighter, finer-legged animal than exists today. However, the Ardennes region has long been a horse breeding area and the general form of its draught horses retains some of the characteristics of the feral horse of northern Europe which existed in prehistoric times. Some of these characteristics – such as a very thick winter coat, a mealy coloured muzzle and an ability to thrive on poor quality fodder – the Ardennes shares with some of the most ancient native northern pony races, showing little evidence of the influence of warm blood crossings which characterise the Percheron or Boulonnais breeds, for example.
The Ardennes has been used extensively to found or improve other local breeds – its close cousin the Auxois for example – and its influence can be seen in the Comtois when it was used in the 1920s to put more substance in the breed. It has been exported throughout the world for the same reason. A version of the breed is well established in Sweden where it is in demand as a forestry horse. There is much interchange of blood lines between the French, Belgium and Luxembourg stud books, although the modern Ardennes is very much the end product of crossing the old, lighter type with the heavier Brabant horses from northern Belgium.
This was initially to provide a weightier animal for very heavy farm draught after motorisation diminished the role of the Ardennes in the armies. This increase in size and weight from around 1,210 lb as an artillery horse to 1,760-2,200 lb today has been very much the result of its demand as a meat animal, its most important role at present, although it is seen in increasing numbers at work in the farms, forests and leisure industries of its native region and elsewhere.
The Modern Ardennes
The Ardennes breed offers much to the professional or leisure user today. It is a powerful, active draught horse with the ideal conformation for efficient power production and utilisation. Add to this its thriftiness, its ability to withstand inclement weather and to survive on poor pastures, its longevity and good hoof quality and its superb temperament, and it is not surprising that it has long been a popular choice for the farmer, forester or army general!
These characteristics are responsible for the interest shown in the breed in the UK, and several horses have been imported from Europe, over the last 20 years in particular. Owners can now belong to the newly formed Ardennes Horse Society of Great Britain.
All over Europe the breed is increasingly used for competitive driving where its surprisingly nimble action and tremendous stamina and good temper is proving highly suitable. A number of Ardennes are used in the UK by the Riding for the Disabled Association and several are in use as sturdy riding horses.
Conformation and Characteristics
It is claimed that the breed, which has always been early maturing, has a faster growth rate than the best of the beef bulls and it retains its reputation as a thrifty animal, needing little supplementary food unless in regular hard work. It should be remembered that meat is muscle, and it is muscle that pulls the plough. The Ardennes has never lost its working abilities, neither structurally nor psychologically.
It has never been a tall breed, averaging 14.2 – 16.3 hh high, and this, coupled with its short back, deep round rib cage and massive bone – 10-12 inches below the knee – and joints makes it an ideal height for a draught animal, particularly in conjunction with its heavily muscled forearms and hindquarters. It is, above all, a real pulling machine. It uses weight very well, leaning low into its collar when moving a heavy load, and its ample girth means there is plenty of room for heart and lungs to work efficiently, giving stamina and endurance.
It is a comparatively clean-legged horse, although it does carry some feather. Its small feet have hard blue horn of high quality, a legacy of generations at work on the hard paved roads as artillery horses. Despite its block appearance, the Ardennes is a free-moving horse, with a deceptively long stride and a willingness to trot which might be unexpected in such a heavily built breed, leading to cover the ground at a surprising speed. Its small pricked ears, fine head and calm eye give a clue to its other outstanding characteristic – its remarkable temperament.
Very few other draught horses are so easy to break in and handle as an Ardennes. The breed has long been recognised as having an exceptionally quiet and calm character, and this feature has been retained. Its phlegmatic and un-flustered nature is one of the reasons why it made such a successful artillery horse, being active and flexible, yet remarkably unflappable.
The two most common colours are bays of various shades, usually with black manes, tails and lower limbs, or a quite startling variety of roans from sandy pinks to dark greys. Pure blacks are rare and whites unacceptable. White markings are usually restricted to a star or blaze.